Fahim Niaz, product manager for Smith Micro, stood at the podium of the crowded panel room with a white artist's doll in his hands. Nearby, a drawing of a girl was projected onto a screen. As Niaz moved the doll's arms and legs, the arms and legs in the drawing moved in sync.
Niaz was kicking off the panel titled "The Future of Graphic Novels and Motion Comics: A Look at the Not-So-Distant Future of Interactive Graphic Storytelling" at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo with a demonstration of a futuristic tool that allows 3D input into the Manga Studio comics creation software. "What you can use this for is perspective, to get a specific pose, so you have that exact pose you are looking for when you are drawing your comic," he said. "A lot of comic artists have to look at newspapers or images and then simulate that. With this tool you are able to simulate a pose and then draw over it, or for some of you who aren't comic artists, you can use this product to create your own comics as long as you have 3D characters you are inputting into the application." To demonstrate, he turned the doll so it was pointed headlong toward the audience, and the girl on the screen rotated as well, flipping into a foreshortened, head-first position.
The doll, called QUMA, is only available in Japan, but the creators on the panel were impressed. "We're just going to talk about that," said "Battlepug" creator Mike Norton, but moderator Eileen Cruz, of ToonZone, quickly moved the artists on to discussions of how they use digital techniques both to draw their comics and to publish their work.
Byron Wilkins, creator of the webcomic "1977: The Comic," showed off a commissioned piece he had done completely in digital media, working with three layers: A rough sketch in blue, then pencils, then inks. After that he does coloring and shading. "Some people say, 'You don't have the original artwork,' but I say I have a million copies of the original artwork; I just print it whenever I want," he said.
Doug Hills, author of Manga Studio for Dummies, also works in all digital media. He used to do the coloring in Photoshop, as that was a weakness of Manga Studio, but with the advent of Manga Studio 5, which has much improved coloring tools, he is now doing the whole process in the same application. He particularly appreciates the brush tools that allow him to blend colors in an oil paint or watercolor style.
"Morning Glories" artist Joe Eisma still uses a combination of Photoshop and Manga Studio for his work, doing the penciling in Photoshop and the inking in Manga Studio. "I really got into reading manga the last few years, and I really like the style," he said. "What I like about Manga Studio is that the tools, the brushes, more than Photoshop, mimic the traditional style, so I'm able to get wispy lines, very thin lines. It's very sensitive to pen pressure on the tablet. It's fun for group shots to play with the line weight so you have the 3D effect."
"The way I use digital things is not so much drawing as publishing," said Reilly Brown, the artist for the creator-owned digital series "Power Play." Brown does his pencils and inks on paper and then does his coloring in Photoshop. "Where digital comes in play with my work is more on the reading end. It's more of the reading experience and how I publish it and put it together." Many digital comics are just print comics transferred to the screen, but Brown wanted to go beyond that. "With 'Power Play' I said, why? Why are we pretending it's print? Let's make a comic that is made to be read digitally, that's made to be read on this format that is the most accessible to the most amount of people," he said. His comics use a variety of digital techniques such as pans, zooms, shifts in focus, letterboxing and fades, which allow him to change one detail in a scene, such as a facial expression, in order to get a limited animation effect.
Norton starts out with sketches in blue pencil on ordinary printer paper. "I play with poses, I'll scan that in, and I'll fix what I don't like and move things around," he said. After that, he uses Manga Studio, which has the brushes and settings he likes. And perspective is easy: "You set up a grid and all your lines snap to it," he said. "It makes me look like I know what I am doing."
Norton said he had to force himself to make time to learn digital. "I got Manga Studio and a Cintiq [tablet], and it sat around for about a year because I was afraid of not being able to output," he said. At the time he was working on several books, and finally he decided to use digital media to draw a Blue Beetle backup story. "It took about three months to get the hang of it to the point where I didn't feel weird," he said. But it has paid off: "It takes away a lot of the fear I had when I was inking my own stuff," he said. "If you do something on paper it's permanent; you usually have to go and fix things with whiteout or knives or draw patch pieces and glue them and scan them and fix that stuff, but when you are doing digital, if you make a mistake it's completely gone, so there you feel invincible. You can do whatever you want, and you'll try new things that you wouldn't before because you were always afraid if you messed up everybody would see it."
Hills talked about the new opportunities that came with the advent of webcomics: "At the bare minimum, if you have a scanner and you have a computer that can upload, there is nothing stopping you from making a comic," he said, recommending creators try free sites such as Drunk Duck and Comic Genesis. "You don't have to know any coding; you just register for your space and start uploading your comics, and that's it. So when people say 'How do I get into comics? I have this story but I don't know what to do with it,' I say 'Just make your comic.' At the very least, you are going to learn what it takes to do this process, because there are times when it is a wonderful thing and then there are days when it's a chore. It's a process."
Brown agreed, saying, "When you do a webcomic, you take yourself through the paces: This is where you start, this is where you go to finish it."
"I wouldn't be where I am now if I didn't say, 'I'm going to make my comic now," said Hills. "Even if you do this and say 'It isn't for me,' at least you can say, 'I tried.' You won't have any regrets."
"Anomaly" creator Brian Haberlin pointed to the success of "Homestuck," which gets millions of unique views a month. "It's the Ulysses of the internet," he said. "It doesn't look like a standard comic and it wouldn't work in print; you would walk by the thing in print and go, 'What the hell is that?'" Yet the "Homestuck" Kickstarter raised $2.4 million in three days. "It's someone being honest about their work and putting it out religiously," he said. Haberlin recommended that creators have a buffer of 20 or so comics before they start posting on the web. "Something will happen in your life, and you won't be able to keep up with it," he warned. "The key is consistency, for building your fanbase."
Social networks are also integral to building a fanbase, said Norton. "If you are doing comics, being available for social media is only going to help you," he said, "because once you are available and accessible by fans and people that are just interested in doing what you do, you immediately become more attractive to them, and they want to be part of what you are doing." The creators had differing opinions on which platforms were the most effective. "I seem to get a lot more feedback and response through Facebook, but I don't have as many followers as I do on Twitter," said Norton. "It's more immediate on Twitter, but I have no way to calculate how many of those people are actually looking and responding."
"There are a ton of these things," Wilkins cautioned, "and each one of them is going to eat away five minutes of your day." He recommended creators pick the one or two social media platforms they are most comfortable with and stick with them. Brown pointed out that they can be synced, so if a creator posts on one it will go up on the others as well. "You probably should have at least a toe in each one," he said.
The panel ended with Haberlin's demonstration of the augmented reality features of his graphic novel "Anomaly." The book is a 370-page, full color, landscape format science fiction novel, and it has 40 augmented reality points. Readers can download the "Anomaly" app for their iOS or Android device and point it at the pages to activate additional content. The audience oohed and ahed as soldiers popped up from the pages ("It's a virtual pop-up book," Haberlin commented) and a small spaceship buzzed around over the page. Haberlin held up a postcard and aimed his tablet at it. A monster popped out, ripped through the paper, and growled an ad for the book. The additional content also includes background material and a diary that fill in the world of the book, a sound feature that yells back if the reader yells at it, and a pilot-the-hovercraft tablet game. "It's seamless -- the app actually recognizes the pages," said Haberlin. "After the book comes out in two weeks, we are adding 10 more AR points. So it's the first graphic novel ever that can also grow after publication."
In the question-and-answer session, the issue of whether all this was simply a gimmick was raised. "On the one hand, yeah, you have to be careful of doing something that looks like a gimmick," answered Brown. "But as long as in the end you are reading the comic, not watching it, as long as it goes at your pace and you are an active and not a passive participant, it's great."